Research Proposal: Analysing the efficacy of land interventions to prevent agricultural soil loss in the Wear catchment

This summer, my research will investigate the best practises for reducing soil loss off of agricultural land in the Wear catchment, County Durham, UK, using modelling and site visits.
Research Proposal: Analysing the efficacy of land interventions to prevent agricultural soil loss in the Wear catchment

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Supervised by: Professor John Wainwright, Department of Geography, Durham University.


 Soil loss is a key challenge facing farmers globally today. Soil forms the ‘foundation’ of agriculture (Borrelli et al., 2017) and global food security (Sartori et al., 2024); its loss can have onsite effects such as damage to crops and reduced nutrient intake (O’Geen and Schwankl, 2006), and also offsite effects, such as increased flood risk and waterway pollution (Borrelli et al., 2017). In England and Wales, the cost of such soil disruption is approximately £1.2 billion annually (Hewett et al., 2018). Clearly, reducing soil loss is an economically and socially attractive goal which could reduce costs and keep crops readily available.

Previous study in the Wear catchment by Durham University in partnership with the Wear Rivers Trust has yielded an accessible tool called CAVERTI for farmers to understand the risks of soil erosion and encourage mitigation actions (Hewett et al., 2018). This tool suggests interventions to lower the risk of soil loss, though intervention efficacy is not assessed. The proposed project aims to produce such an assessment, allowing farmers to make informed decisions to reduce risks and costs associated with soil loss.

Existing literature (Wainwright et al., 2008a; Wainwright et al., 2008b) identifies issues with previous soil-erosion models and hence establishes an improved model, accounting for the complexity of erosion systems. This model allows for the use of a connectivity framework (Wainwright et al., 2011) in the proposed project, as many interventions emphasise the need to break-up connected water and erosion pathways in the landscape. The intervention methods to be analysed will be taken from both the CAVERTI tool and existing literature; they include: no-till practises, cover cropping, strategic positioning of tramlines and grass barriers (Gomiero, 2013; Pan et al., 2016; Hewett et al., 2018; López-Vicente et al., 2020). These interventions will be analysed within the context of the Wear catchment, to utilise existing data and to ensure the feasibility of this project.


To achieve the project aim of gaining an understanding of the best practises to reduce agricultural soil loss in a UK context, the following research questions will be addressed:

  1. What are the existing interventions to reduce agricultural soil loss suggested by existing literature?                                                 

This review will highlight the two best interventions for further study to ensure feasibility of the project.

  1. Of the two selected interventions, which is the most effective at reducing soil loss?
  2.     In which conditions are these interventions most effective at reducing soil loss? 


This project will adopt a connectivity-based approach (Wainwright et al., 2011), as is discussed in the background of this proposal. This will involve modelling multiple soil loss conditions to understand how processes are connected, and thus establish how different interventions might be suited to these conditions.

This will involve a literature review of the main factors concerning soil loss off UK agricultural land and established intervention methods, focusing on hydrological theory and hillslope processes. The primary focus will be UK based research, but comparable research from other areas will also be considered to find overall best practise. This review will determine which intervention methods are to be analysed with modelling.

Discussions with local farmers will also take place to establish any soil loss interventions in practical operation not covered in the literature. This will build upon the study areas and contacts identified in previous work supported by the Wear Rivers Trust, concerning the sub-catchment of Brancepeth Beck. This participatory approach would ensure that the results are as relevant as possible to stakeholders in the area.

The modelling stage will make use existing data such as: topography, soil type and infiltration rates to simulate soil loss within the MAHLERAN model (Wainwright et al., 2008). This is the most suitable model for this project as it has improved on previously over-simplified erosion models. Simulations would then be repeated using the chosen intervention methods.

Analysis of the modelling results would be used to conclude which intervention method is the most successful at reducing agricultural soil loss in each set of conditions, resulting in a report which can be shared with land users within the Wear catchment and with the Wear Rivers Trust to inform their work in the area.



Weeks 1-2: Literature review and selection of intervention methods to be modelled.

Weeks 3-4: Implementation of the intervention methods in the model.

Week 5: Final analysis of modelling results.

Week 6: Report write up.

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